The Aymara Tribe: Music, Art & Clothing

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Colorful woven textiles and music played on distinct instruments like panpipes and charangos. They're from a very old native South American culture. In this lesson, explore the clothing, music and art of the Aymara tribe.

Who are the Aymara Tribe?

In South America, a native culture lives high in the Andes Mountains. They have distinct traditions in colorful textiles and music that they've developed over thousands of years. They're called the Aymara tribe.

Aymara women wearing colorful textiles
Aymara women

The Aymara tribe is indigenous to a plateau called the altiplano (which means 'high plains') in the towering Andes Mountains. Today, this area is part of countries like Bolivia and Peru, as well as portions of Ecuador and Chile. The term indigenous, by the way, means people who are the original inhabitants of a geographic place.

The Aymara have lived in the Andes for centuries, farming crops like sweet potatoes and herding animals like alpacas and llamas. Historically, the Aymara lived in extended family groups and practiced a religion with a distinct group of spirits and deities.

Throughout their history, the Aymara faced conflict with other groups. In the 1400s, they were conquered by the more powerful Inca culture which also lived in the Andes. In the 1500s, the Spanish conquest brought European invaders to South America and resulted in centuries of slavery and suppression for the Aymaras. Europeans also brought cultural traditions that blended with Aymara customs. Through centuries of hardships, the Aymara endured. Today they still live in the Andes.

Clothing and Art of the Aymara Tribe

The Aymara are known for excellent weaving skills. Weaving is the process of making textiles by interconnecting vertical and horizontal threads on a piece of equipment called a loom. Using wool from llamas and alpacas, and fibers from plants like cotton, the Aymara create beautiful textiles with bold geometric patterns and colors. Colors come from natural dyes and include bright blues, greens and pinks, as well as rich dark tones. The Aymara use the woven cloth to make clothing and accessories which they wear and sell as trade goods.

Aymara clothing includes tunics, long shirt-like pieces of clothing that reach to about the knee; skirts; and ponchos, blanket-like cloaks with a slit in them that serves as a hole through which a person puts their head.

Example of an Aymara poncho
Aymara poncho

The Aymara also use woven cloth to make accessories like belts, sashes, and hats. One unique type of hat, usually worn by men, is woven in a conical shape with ear flaps. Another important accessory with a ceremonial purpose is the chuspa, a small woven bag with a strap that fits over a person's shoulder. Traditionally, the chuspa is used by men for carrying coca leaves. The leaves are chewed for ritual purposes, as an everyday habit and to prevent things like altitude sickness.

In addition to textiles, the Aymara also use reeds to weave baskets and other objects. They're skilled potters who make a variety of utilitarian and decorative vessels from clay. And they have a strong tradition of working with metals, particularly silver, which is a plentiful natural material in the region. Silver has been worked to make masks, jewelry and other decorative items.

Music of the Aymara Tribe

Music is very important to the Aymara people. For centuries, they've used it for rituals, in ceremonies and for festive occasions. Prior to European contact, early Aymara instruments included several kinds of pipes and flutes, like the zampoña or panpipe. It's sometimes also called a siku.

Men playing the zampona or siku. In their hands they also hold quenas.
siku players

This instrument is made of several different sizes of bamboo pipes, bound together with string or twine to form a hand-held instrument that's shaped a bit like a long uneven triangle. Each pipe is open on one end and closed on the other, and played by blowing across the top. Another similar instrument, the quena or six-hole flute, is thought to have once played a role in fertility rituals. The quena is also usually made of bamboo.

Aymara music also includes percussion instruments of many kinds, like long wooden drums called bombos and animal-hide covered cylindrical drums called wankaras, which are larger than bombos. Wankaras are similar to bass drums. Other percussions include small hand-drums, shakers and rattles.

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